The Koniuchy (Kaniukai) massacre was a World War II massacre of Polish and Byelorussian civilians, mostly women and children,carried out in the village of Koniuchy (now Kaniukai, Lithuania) on 29 January 1944 by a Soviet partisan unit together with a contingent of Jewish partisans under Soviet command. At least 38 civilians who have been identified by name were killed, and more than a dozen were injured.
Prior to the massacre and in response to raiding by Soviet partisans, the village had formed an armed self-defense force with the encouragement and backing of the Lithuanian Auxiliary Police, to defend from Partisan raids; according to partisan sources the force's operations hindered their activity in the vicinity of the village significantly, though some historians stress the token nature of the force.
The events, still politically charged, were investigated by authorities in Poland (2001) and Lithuania (2004), the latter in a fashion that was perceived in the West as politically motivated. Some coverage of this event has been criticized for exaggerating the role of Jewish partisans in this raid; others for trying to deny or justify the massacre.
- 1 Background
- 2 Background
- 3 Massacre
- 4 Investigation and controversy
- 5 Commemoration
Koniuchy, now known as Kaniukai, is a village located in Lithuania near the Belarus–Lithuania border. Before the Second World War, it belonged to the Second Polish Republic and, after the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, it was transferred to Lithuania according to the Soviet–Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty. Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in June 1940 and by Nazi Germany in June 1941. According to the census, carried out in August 1942 in Generalbezirk Litauen, the village had 374 people – 41 of them declared their nationality as Lithuanians, 17 as Poles, and the rest chose ambiguous "of Lithuania".
Soviet partisans became more active in the area in 1943. Koniuchy is located at the edge of the Rudniki Forest (now Rūdininkai Forest [lt]), where partisan groups, both Soviet and Jewish, set up their bases from which they attacked the German forces. Unlike Polish partisans of Armia Krajowa (Home Army), these partisans did not enjoy widespread local support and could not depend on voluntary food contributions from local farmers. Therefore, Soviet partisans regularly raided nearby villages to rob the locals from food stocks, cattle, and clothing.This raiding led to clashes between the farmers and the partisans. In response, German administration deployed Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalions in the area and provided weapons to local self-defence units.
Soviet partisants starting from 1943 were cut off from supplies from Soviet Union and their supply situation drastically worsened. As per directives from Moscow they were allowed to confiscate material goods from their opponents, and execute them. Some unit had specialized groups engaging in looting of precious items such as gold and jewellery from "counter-revolutionaries" and increasingly the partisants engaged in violence and terror against local villagers.[ In some cases the partisans robbed the locals of their last supplies of food, condemning their families to death from starvation.
Antony Polonsky characterizes the situation in the area as "a bitter three-way conflict between the Soviet Lithuanian partisans... the Polish Home Army... and the Lithuanian local police force supported by their German protectors... During this period many encounters between partisans and local police from the villages took place, marked by the arbitrary killing on both sides of suspect civilians. No doubt, many of these suspects were innocent."
As raiding intensified in the summer of 1943, men of Koniuchy organized an unarmed night guard. In early fall 1943, the village was visited by four Lithuanian policemen and the men agreed to organize an armed self-defence group. According to later testimony by its leaders, the group grew from an initial 5 or 6 members to 25–30 men.There is no reliable data on the group's weapons. Soviet sources claimed that the village had three machine guns and automatic rifles. One of the leaders of the self-defence unit Vladislavas Voronis in his post-war trial by NKVD, trying to minimize his anti-Soviet activities, claimed that the group had only eight rifles and ten sawed-off shotguns. It is likely that at least some weapons were provided by the Lithuanian policemen of the 253rd Police Battalion which had an outpost in Naujosios Rakliškės .
There were several incidents between the partisans and the men of Koniuchy. On October 13, 1940, a group of six armed Soviet partisans took three cartloads worth of food, clothes, and other items. The villagers stopped the partisans on a bridge over Salčca and took back the property. In January 1944, a Soviet partisan was killed in Didziosios Selos in an operation that involved a few men from Koniuchy. Soviet sources claimed that the partisan was captured, transported to Koniuchy, tortured, and later executed. Similarly, Soviet sources implicated men from Koniuchy in attacks on Soviet partisans in Visincia and Kalitonys . In a November 2008 interview, York University professor Sara Ginaite who was part of the partisan unit which attacked Koniuchy, although she herself was not present during the massacre, has said that the village had a record of hostility to the partisans and that, in collaboration with the Nazis and the local Lithuanian police, the town had organized an armed group to fight the partisans. According to Soviet and Jewish sources, the villagers constituted a pro-Nazi threat to the partisans, though collaboration was denied by the villagers who claimed that only a few men in the village were armed with rifles for self-protection.]
According to historian Kazimierz Krajewski there were no fortifications in the civilian community and the self-defense force was equipped with some rusty rifles.
According to Lithuanian historian Rimantas Zizas it is doubtful if the village self-defence forces contained more than 20 men. Zizas writes that Soviet records lack any precise facts regarding alleged resistance and activities by Koniuchy, and there are no events or combat operations involving the village recorded in the Soviet archives, that would explain the particular ruthlessness of the massacre. In other cases where Soviet forces tried to intimidate or punish local settlements only a limited civilians and self-defence members were murdered. According to Zizas, the Soviet command received reports from the Soviet partisans complaining about particular harshness and cruelty by Jewish units towards policemen and civilians suspected of being involved in pogroms and Holocaust, and according to Zizas the desire to enact revenge might have clouded the participants judgment and ability to distinguish between real culprits and innocent civilians. According to other Soviet partisans, the "Death to Occupiers" unit was composed 90% of civilians, was poorly trained, lacked discipline, and had no experienced officers leading it. Zizas concludes that Soviet command might have planned to use Jewish unit to fight civilian resistance to Soviet rule, exploiting their motivation for revenge. In his analysis of the Soviet arguments and records regarding the massacre, Zizas comes to the conclusion that these are mostly demagogic and come off as trying to justify a particularly cruel atrocity. According to Zizas, most Soviet partisans involved omitted the action in Koniuchy from their memoirs.
On 29 January 1944, around 6 a.m., the village was attacked by Soviet partisan units under the command of the Central Partisan Command in Moscow. The raid was carried out by 100–120 partisans from various units including 30 Jewish partisans. The units involved were "Death to occupiers", "Death to fascism", "Thunder", "Margirio" and a unit named after Adam Mickiewicz. The units belonged to the partisan Vilnius Brigade, with the exception of "Death to occupiers", which was part of the Kaunas partisan brigade.
At least 38 villagers who have been identified by name were killed and more than a dozen were wounded; most of the homes were burned to the ground and looted. The commemorative monument erected in Koniuchy lists 38 name, among them 19 women and 7 children under the age of 16. The youngest child murdered was 1.5 years, and a 3-year-old girl was shot while held in her mother's arms 
According to reports of the Lithuanian Security Police, 36 houses, 40 granaries, 39 barns, and one banya were burned down, 50 cows, 16 horses, about 50 pigs, and 100 sheep were slaughtered. The massacre of Koniuchy and murder of its inhabitants was documented by one of the attacking partisans, Chaim Lazar. According to Lazar the village was to be destroyed completely as an example to others, and even the livestock was to be killed
Soviet partisans also confiscated arms in the nearby villages of Butrimonys, Jononiai, Klepociai, Pasalis, and Sauliai. In the village of Kiemeliskes was attacked and the partisans took provisions. According to Lithuanian auxiliary police battalion reports, 52 auxiliary armed with machine guns arrived went to Koniuchy at 7 AM, but to intercept the Soviets. Additional Lithuanian attempts to ambush the Soviets were also unsuccessful.
Investigation and controversy
The Polish Institute of National Remembrance initiated a formal investigation into the incident on 3 March 2001, at the request of the Canadian Polish Congress. The institute examined a number of archival documents including police reports, encoded messages, military records and personnel files of the Soviet partisans. Requests for legal assistance were then sent to state prosecutors in Belarus, Lithuania, the Russian Federation and Israel. The IPN investigation was closed in February 2018. The official reason for the closure was that the investigators were not able to establish "beyond a reasonable doubt" that any perpetrators of the massacre were still alive, and as a result concluded that there was no one who could be charged with a crime.
According to Polonsky, ethno-nationalists in both Lithuania and Poland have portrayed Koniuchy as a "Jewish action". While the exact determination of the ethnicity of the Soviet partisans is not possible, it is clear that Jews were a minority in these formations. While discussing anti-Semitic stereotypes and historical exaggerations of Jews' role in Soviet atrocities, Polonsky stated that time has come for Jews to accept that [some of] their compatriots also carried out atrocities, and partisans involved in Koniuchy and Naliboki massacres committed "very evil things".
The Lithuanian prosecutor general subsequently opened its own investigation into the massacre in 2004. As part of its investigation, Lithuanian prosecutors sought out Jewish veterans of the partisan movement. One of these was Yitzhak Arad, an expert on the Holocaust in Lithuania and former chairman of Yad Vashem. Arad had also served as a member of a commission appointed by Lithuania's president in 2005 to examine past war crimes. In response to the investigation, Yad Vashem issued a protest saying it focused on "victims of Nazi oppression" and suspended Israeli participation in the commission which Arad was part of. The failure of the Lithuanian judiciary to investigate pro-Nazi collaborators while choosing to prosecute Jewish partisans led to charges of hypocrisy concerning the Lithuanian motivation. The work of an international commission to investigate war crimes in Lithuanian was derailed by the Lithuanian investigation. Further attempts to investigate elderly Jewish survivors was perceived as an attempt of victim blaming. Following wide international criticism (and some domestic criticism) the Lithuanian investigation was closed in September 2008.
Piotr Gontarczyk said the events of Koniuchy distort the black and white, heroic image of Jewish partistans in East Kresy, whose history is one of founding myths of Israel, and attempts to reconstruct complicated historic events, or interview figures like Arad are seen as antisemitism. Both Polish and Lithuanian perception of Soviet partisans differs from the Jewish one
According to Dovid Katz, in Lithuania a politicized prosecution service together state-funded memory and history institutions have used Kaniūkai (portrayed as a Lithuanian village, not Polish) in order to obfuscate the Holocaust by shifting blame to Soviet partisans from unpunished local war criminals. According to Katz, this is an abuse of the tragedy in the village in order to create an "equivalence" with the Nazi-led Holocaust in Lithuania in which 200,000 Jews were murdered, which was carried out "with great fervor" by local Lithuanian volunteers, resulting in the highest percentage (95%) of murder in any nation during the Holocaust. According to Katz, outside of Lithuania Kaniukai has come to represent the revision of history, funded by state resources, towards the direction of far-right nationalists in post-communist Europe.
Memorial cross erected in 2004
In May 2004, a memorial cross commemorating the event was erected in Kaniūkai with the names of the known victims